In one short column, here is everything you wanted to know about seeing a puffin. You’re welcome.
The Atlantic puffin is one of Maine’s most popular birds. On the web site www.mainebirdingtrail.com, the puffin page receives more hits than the next three pages combined, yet few Mainers have actually viewed one because puffins are almost never seen from shore. They spend their lives at sea, returning to their nesting islands only long enough to breed, and then departing for open ocean again in late summer. There are five puffin islands along the Maine coast.
Machias Seal Island provides the biggest bang for the buck because it is the sole puffin colony that allows birders to land. Visitors watch from blinds just an arm’s length away from puffins, razorbills, murres, and terns. The only American vessel that is allowed to land passengers is Captain Andy Patterson’s Bold Coast Charter, which departs from Cutler harbor daily. Swells from the south and east can prevent a landing, but on these occasions, the boats will circle the island and the bird-watching will still be incredible. This puffin adventure is pricier than others, but worth every penny. No birding experience in Maine can top it. Book early, because Andy fills his passenger list very quickly each year.
Petit Manan Island is a 16-acre island north of Schoodic Point that is covered in birds. It supports a large population of laughing gulls and common terns, almost as many arctic terns, and several dozen pairs of roseate terns. Bar Harbor Whale Watch makes daily morning trips to the island before heading out to the whaling grounds. The large, stable catamaran is preferred by people who suffer from seasickness, and ocean birds are more likely to be seen from its deck. Bar Harbor Boat Tours visits Petit Manan every afternoon, and Robertson Sea Tours brings small groups to the island from Milbridge. The shallow draft of Robertson’s Mairi Leigh allows it to get closer to shore than some.
Seal Island lies 22 miles southeast of Rockland. Besides the abundant puffins, it is home to a large number of razorbills, and supports a breeding colony of great cormorants. Two boats from Stonington visit the island sporadically. Captain Bill Baker of Old Quarry Adventures schedules bi-weekly trips to the colony and additional visits are available by charter.
Recently, the Isle au Haut Ferry began scheduling tours to Seal Island. I couldn’t be happier. I went out with Captain Garrett Aldrich a week ago during the birding festival in Stonington, and it was splendid. The ferry is larger than a standard lobster boat and can handle more people and bigger waves. The cabin is roomy, allowing some relief for underdressed passengers on cold, wet days. The remaining visits this year will be on June 30, July 21 and Aug. 4. I’ll be the spotter on the June 30 trip and noted Isle au Haut naturalist Kathie Fiveash will be your guide for the latter two excursions. You’d be wise to get your tickets now.
Matinicus Rock is 22 miles southeast of Rockland. There are no regularly scheduled commercial trips, but Maine Audubon conducts an annual excursion to the 32 acre island. Information on the June 7 outing is available at www.maineaudubon.org. It’s a two-fer: Audubon charters the Hardy Boat from New Harbor for this voyage and the route also brushes past the puffin colony at Eastern Egg Rock.
For Matinicus Rock, additional charter trips are available from Matinicus Excursions in Rockland and, for a little extra coin, the boat will throw in a trip to Seal Island, too.
Eastern Egg Rock is an 11-acre island located six miles from New Harbor. Common, arctic and roseate tern colonies are established on the island, and it is one of the most reliable places to see roseate terns in Maine. The island is visited every evening by The Hardy Boat, which is docked at New Harbor. Cap’n Fish circles the island four times a week from Boothbay Harbor. The Monhegan Boat Line in Port Clyde visits the island daily and four evenings a week during the puffin season.
I’ve posted contact information for all of these puffin adventures at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. If you’re thinking about taking a trip this summer, be aware that the tour season winds down by the third week of August. Dress for cold and wet. Take precautions for seasickness. Each boat and island is a different experience. Need advice on which best suits you? Email me. I’ve done them all.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at email@example.com.